Entering Monday’s College Football Playoff Championship Game against No. 2 Alabama, the Clemson Tigers had just one national title to their credit. They now have two, with the 2016 team joining the 1981 team as champions of college football. Then-head coach Danny Ford (who is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame’s 2017 class) led that 1981 team to a 12-0 record that included three wins over teams ranked in the Top 10.
What’s interesting about Clemson’s 1981 national title season is that they began the year unranked, making the championship run a rarity.
Clemson didn’t move into the national polls until the week after their 13-3 win over then-No. 4 Georgia on September 19, 1981. The Tigers were ranked 14th in the polls following that win, which ended Georgia’s 15-game win streak. The Tigers picked off Georgia quarterback Buck Belue five times, and also forced two Herschel Walker fumbles.
Clemson jumped into the Top 10 after winning at Kentucky by the final score of 21-3 the following week. The wins over Georgia and Kentucky were the first two of six consecutive wins by ten points or more, with the most dominant showing being an 82-24 win over Wake Forest.
The Tigers picked up their second win over a Top 10 opponent the next week, as they beat then-No. 8 North Carolina 10-8 in Chapel Hill. That game was the first in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference that matched two conference teams ranked in the Top 10. Clemson was ranked in the top five of the national polls for the final five weeks of the regular season, and they were atop the polls going into the 1982 Orange Bowl where they played No. 4 Nebraska.
Quarterback Homer Jordan threw for 1,630 yards and nine touchdowns (with nine interceptions) while also running for 486 yards during the 1981 season, with running backs Cliff Austin (824 rushing yards and nine touchdowns) and Chuck McSwain (692 rushing yards and seven touchdowns) leading the way on the ground. As for the receivers Perry Tuttle, who was a first round pick of the Buffalo Bills in the 1982 NFL Draft, led the way with 52 catches for 883 yards and nine touchdown receptions.
The Clemson defense was dominant that season, allowing a total of 105 points over 12 games (nation’s best 8.8 points per game). Defensive end Jeff Bryant, like Tuttle, would be selected in the first round of the 1982 NFL Draft (sixth overall pick by Seattle), and linebacker Jeff Davis was also a standout on that unit. William “Refrigerator” Perry, whose fame would come as a pro with the Chicago Bears, was also a member of that defensive line rotation.
Stats credit: Sports Reference